From his dazzling college debut on Labor Day against Pitt to his MVP performance against Duke in the ACC title game, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has somehow exceeded the enormous preseason hype he carried into 2013.
His on-field exploits have him at the top of the college football mountain top. Winston became the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever on Saturday night and is also set to play for the national championship vs. Auburn on Jan. 6.
However, his dream season was almost derailed. His name and reputation took a hit when news broke in November of his potential involvement in a sexual assault case dating back to December 2012.
With last week’s announcement from the Florida state attorney's office that he will not be charged in that incident, the focus shifts to putting Winston’s freshman season into proper historical perspective.
Considering that Winston has the Seminoles on the brink of capturing their third national title in school history and first since 1999, his stunning debut campaign is worthy of earning him a place into the most celebrated fraternity in all of sports.
Matt Scott, who was Winston’s head coach at Hueytown (Ala.) High School, couldn't help but grin watching his former star player light up ACC defenses this season.
“In the Maryland game where he made that unbelievable escape out of the pocket and threw the touchdown pass, and it was like, 'I’ve seen that movie before,'” Scott said. “That’s the amazing part. He did the same things in college that I saw him do in high school.”
Florida State entered this season having to replace a school-record 11 NFL draft picks—including the lone quarterback selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, EJ Manuel.
Instead of taking lumps and learning the ropes to Jimbo Fisher’s complex scheme, Winston’s insertion into the starting unit was akin to lighting the fuse to a stick of dynamite.
He’s thrown for 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns—an ACC record and an FBS freshman record. But as great as his numbers are, they don’t fully explain his value to his team.
Nearly all of the main skill-position players from the 2012 team returned, but the production of receivers Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin have significantly increased. Manuel also had tight end Nick O’Leary and running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. at his disposal, but the offense averaged nearly 14 points per game more than last season’s unit with Winston at the controls.
While Winston’s physical gifts are noticeable at first glance, his mental capacity to digest the nuances of Fisher’s scheme has been evident from the first snap of the season.
“One of the things that I think makes him special is his football IQ,” said Scott. “He’s able to process information quickly when you tell him something, but he’s also one of those rare guys who can translate onto the field immediately.”
Perhaps more important than his production, Winston has a personality that has endeared him to his teammates and allowed him to assume a leadership role despite this being his first year of action at the college level.
FSU's Lamarcus Joyner: I was appointed to be a leader. Jameis was born to be a leader. pic.twitter.com/x6TLHI5UyS— Natalie Pierre (@Natalie_Pierre) December 11, 2013
Regardless of the circumstances, one thing is certain: There’s been no moment too big for Winston.
His 444-yard, four-touchdown performance at then-No. 3 Clemson was preceded by his now-famous pregame speech that set the tone for the most impressive performance of the season in a 51-14 rout that put the ‘Noles on the map as a viable national title contender.
Another measure of Winston’s influence on the 2013 edition of the Seminoles can be found by viewing FSU’s heavy presence among the national leaders in several offensive categories. Whether it’s total offense (sixth), scoring offense (second), third-down conversions (third) or red-zone scoring (first), Fisher’s offense has risen to a level it’s never been before throughout his illustrious coaching career.
Critics of FSU’s body of work will point out that FSU’s strength of schedule ranks just 63rd in the Sagarin ratings. However, as Matt Hinton of SB Nation details, the last team to have an average margin of victory of more than 40 points was Army in 1945.
Florida State is 13-0 with an average margin of victory of more than 42 points per game.
As powerful and intimidating as Bobby Bowden’s teams were during the program’s dynasty years, no Seminoles squad can match the dominance that the 2013 version has displayed.
While the ‘Noles have enough talent to be a good team without him, Winston’s presence is what elevates them to a level few teams have ever seen in the history of the sport.
Two other former Florida State quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy: Charlie Ward in 1993 and Chris Weinke in 2000.
Two decades following Ward’s brilliant senior season, Winston’s 2013 campaign parallels favorably in comparison to the Heisman seasons of both former Seminoles legends.
Winston’s 42 total touchdowns and quarterback rating of 190.06 trumps both Ward and Wienke’s totals, and his 4,013 yards of total offense trails Wienke’s figure by just 57 yards.
As Toby Petitpas of ESPN details, Winston’s numbers are eye-popping whether he’s under pressure, going deep or keeping the chains moving on third down. To be sure, the former 5-star recruit has the resume to stand alongside other recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks.
Of the eight quarterbacks to win the award since 2003, only Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in 2011 and the Oklahoma duo of Jason White (2003) and Sam Bradford (2008) have passed for more yards than Winston. Griffin is the only one to complete a higher percentage of his passes among that group.
|Heisman Winner||Year||Passing Yards||Pass TD/INT||Completion %||Rush Yards||Rush TD||QB Rating||Record||Team Margin of Victory|
|Jason White||2003||3,846||40/10||61.6||- 150||1||158.5||12-2||27.6|
|Matt Leinart||2004||3,322||33/6||65.3||- 44||3||156.5||13-0||25.2|
|Robert Griffin III||2011||4,293||37/6||72.4||699||10||189.47||10-3||8.1|
Of the five quarterbacks in the group who have either won or played for a national title, none of their teams had a margin of victory above 30 points.
By contrast, Florida State has left a path of destruction in its wake. The Seminoles' average margin of victory is two touchdowns better than any of the clubs led by Heisman-winning quarterbacks in the last decade.
Even when Winston’s season is stacked against dominant Heisman-winning running backs such as Ohio State’s Archie Griffin and Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders—both of whom were integral parts of teams that won 10 or more games—the overwhelming nature of Winston's team’s success helps his case stand out.
While he may not have been as individually dominant as Auburn’s Cam Newton, he infused his team with the same confidence and swagger reminiscent of the Tigers’ title run in 2010.
“Regardless of his age or class, he’s not going to accept anything less than the best from the people around him,” Scott said. “He has that quality that other players respond to, and it’s very special to observe when you are around him.”
And Winston has done it all as a redshirt freshman.
"I’m not surprised," Winston told Bleacher Report recently. "Because in the spring, we made this agreement as a team. It was our main goal to win a national championship. The Heisman thing is obviously an individual thing, but I see it as a team goal. I know my team really wants me to bring that back home."
Unlike Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, who was the first freshman to win the Heisman last season, Winston was a known quantity entering the season. Despite his off-field issues and the limelight of competing for a BCS title berth, he’s kept his razor-like focus on the field intact.
As dominant as he’s been individually, his intangible qualities and competitive fire are equally important components that have his team in position to leave its mark as one of the most dominant in FSU history.
None of what has happened with Jameis Winston’s on-field excellence is surprising to people such as Scott, who watched him turn into a two-sport star with aspirations of playing pro football and baseball.
“He’s exhibited that he’s got a gift that allows him to perform at a high level when the pressure is high and the lights are on,” Scott said. “He just has a way of making things that are supposed to be hard look easy.”
As David M. Hale of ESPN noted, Winston has been preparing for this stage since he was 12 years old. From that point, it seems like he’s handled every obstacle in his path as if he was born to fit the role he’s playing.
“He’s at his best in a competitive environment,” said Scott. “He demonstrates a calmness and a level of focus in these situations that is beyond rare. To him, he’s just doing the same things he’s been doing his whole life.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand, and all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.